FLEX, by Ferrett Steinmetz, is an interesting and potent (if that is the right word) urban fantasy novel.
In what follows, I have tried to avoid major plot spoilers, but I cannot discuss the novel without giving away at least a little. You have been warned.
Magic is illegal, yet some people practice it. They are called ‘mancers, with the prefix being their source of power — thus a videomancer gets magic from video games, an illustromancer from paintings, and so on. The ability to do magic is rare: nobody can just decide to cultivate it, or inherit the ability to do it. Rather, it is a byproduct of obsession: if you are sufficiently obsessed by something, so that it consumes and becomes your entire life, then you may develop magical powers in connection with it.
Magic works by apparently violating the laws of physics; or, more precisely, by violating the laws of probability. To work magic is to have extraordinary good luck, so that things that are extremely unlikely to happen nonetheless do happen .The novel is a bit ambiguous on this point, however; in fact, unlikely things do not in themselves violate the “laws” of physics — even aside from the fact that there is no consensus on what it means for there to be physical “laws”. It would not strictly violate any physical laws for all the oxygen molecules in my room to aggregate on the other side of the room from where I am sitting, so that I would suffocate to death; it is just that the probability of this happening is so low that it would require far longer than the 14 billion year life of the universe since the Big Bang for such a combination to ever turn up. All this could well be expressed in terms of entropy. The author would only strengthen his overall schema if he were to add such a layer of explanation to any future novels set in the same world.
In any case, life is negentropic: it maintains internal order by exporting entropy into the surrounding environment. In the world of FLEX, magic is even more strikingly negentropic: it produces desired or positive outcomes that are statistically too unlikely to happen. And as with physical energy, there is a price to pay: magic always has blowback, called Flux, which is statistically anomalous bad luck to counterbalance the good. ‘Mancers can only be successful if they contain the Flux in some way, or redirect it away from themselves. The novel’s protagonist at one point redirects all the Flux from his actions away from himself and into the ground; the result is a massive earthquake, in a region not normally prone to disturbances of this sort.
In the world of the novel, ‘mancy is illegal, for several reasons. Excessive use of it leads to fractures in the very fabric of reality. Even if this point is not reached, the blowback from Flux can be violently destructive, not only to the ‘mancer but to bystanders as well. Anyone suspected of ‘mancy is arrested and sent to the Refactor, a sort of brainwashing concentration camp. “Mundanes” (non-magical people) sent to the Refactor in error have their minds permanently destroyed; ‘mancers sent to the Refactor have their personalities crushed, and their obsessions refashioned, so that they become sort of robotic clones in SMASH, the Army’s ‘mancer squad, where they are used to suppress all other instances of ‘mancy.
So the novel envisions a world in which the only thing worse than private obsessions getting out of hand is the socially-sanctioned totalitarian control and rechanneling of these obsessions. It’s like the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror” rolled into one. Just as with drugs, the official discourse denies the beauty and exhilaration that can come from practicing ‘mancy. And ‘mancy is also like drugs in this respect: certain ‘mancers can objectify their magic, as it were, by congealing it in physical form as a drug, known as Flex. Mundanes can experience the extraordinary good luck of ‘mancers when they take the drug. But usually the drug contains the Flux as well — so that the blowback after the high dissipates is destructive and deadly.
In other words — and this is a crucial thematic point — ‘mancy is inherently singular and personal — it arises out of particular obsessions. It can only be made “objective” or general by squeezing out the very obsession which produces it, so that this subjectivity no longer inhabits the finished product. This is done in one way by the Army when they brainwash ‘mancers and turn them into depersonalized obedient units. It is done in another way when the drug Flex is made by ‘mancers: they can only make the product by eliminating their own subjectivity from it, and thereby denaturing it.
The novel’s protagonist, Paul Tsabo, is a ‘mancy-fighter, until he discovers that he is a ‘mancer himself. Now, he must try to use his magic for good — though he finds he also values it in itself, as the most absorbing and joyful thing he has ever been able to do — while continuing to fight the evil ‘mancers, and evading capture or exposure himself (since the law does not discriminate between good and bad ‘mancy).
The novel’s antagonist, Anathema, is a paleomancer — sort of like the Black Block anarchists, she despises all human civilization, and wants to destroy it so that we may revert to a pre-agricultural state (or perhaps something even before that). She deliberately doses marginally unstable people with Flex, so that they will act out, and then bring down the Flux both upon themselves and others. She sows chaos, death, and destruction, with the aim of bringing down civilization itself.
Paul must stop Anathema — and he struggles to do this in several ways. For one thing, he makes his own Flex, congealing his magic into a pure (but depersonalized) form — and unlike Anathema and nearly all other Flex dealers, he drains away the Flux, so that the drug doesn’t have any blowback when others take it. Actually, this doesn’t work too well — since the only result is that gangsters get ahold of Paul’s Flex, and by taking it they can get away with just about anything, without any worry about bad consequences or getting caught. In other words, unadulterated Flex is even worse than crack, in the way that it empowers egotistical assholes to do whatever the fuck they want, at everyone else’s expense. There’s a thin line between ‘mancy as an expression and creative amplification, which gives pleasure by transmuting obsession into beauty and a sense of fulfillment ; and ‘mancy as a form of oppression and terror, either when it allows somebody to impose their particular obsessions upon others, or when it gets depersonalized and objectified (whether in the form of the drug, or in the form of Army totalitarian death squads). I can’t help thinking here of the way that billionaires like the Koch Brothers or Bill Gates, due to their vast wealth, are able to impose their obsessions on the country at large; their money is like a form of ‘mancy, allowing them to get away with things and transferring the Flux or blowback to us. (This is not to deny that Gates has done good things with his money — contributing to the cure of diseases in the underdeveloped world — as well as bad things — e.g. so called “educational reform.” Whereas the Koch Brothers’ use of their money is entirely and unequivocally noxious. It is just troubling that certain individuals should have this power, when the vast majority of us do not. It’s inherently undemocratic and oppressive, even in the rare cases where the money is used for good).
In any case — I still haven’t mentioned what Paul’s own form of ‘mancy is. And this is the novel’s most brilliant stroke. Paul is a bureaucromancer — his obsession is with bureaucracy, and his magic consists in changing the world by filling out and filing bureaucratic forms. He can access any data that has been collected bureaucratically, by the government or by private businesses. He can pull papers out of thin air, fill then up with forms, checkboxes, and specifications, and by signing the papers conjure what he has written into objective effect. This is because Paul’s philosophy of life — his all-consuming obsession, in fact — is to see bureaucracy as the cornerstone of civilization, as humankind’s unique tool for fending off violence and oppression, for establishing the very possibility of safety, stability, and comfort, and for making fairness and equality at least thinkable and potentially obtainable. This is quite wonderful, because it encapsulates an idea which goes against all the assumptions of our age. If there is one thing that everyone in our neoliberal age hates, it is bureaucracy. Everyone from Rand Paul to David Graeber detests it. Politicians always loudly oppose it. Leftists want to hang the last bureaucrat along with the last billionaire, or the last priest. The Tea Party sees it as a scourge to be eliminated. So-called “centrists” or “moderates” are mealy-mouthed about it, just as they are mealy-mouthed about everything — but they still insist on getting rid of it, as much as they ever insist on anything. Modernist literature, from Kafka on down, figures bureaucracy as the central scourge of 20th- (and now 21st-) century life. FLEX is nearly the only contemporary book I have ever read that supports bureaucracy, and even celebrates it.
Now of course, the deep hypocrisy, or “dirty little secret” of our age is that in fact it runs entirely on (disavowed) bureaucracy. Reagan and Thatcher introduced massive levels of it, precisely as a means of destroying the welfare state, of “deregulating” various institutional practices, and of promoting “efficiency” and “competition”. (We get a lot of this in academia in particular, where things more and more turn upon various mechanisms of supposedly objective assessment, of quantification, etc.). All large corporations are heavily bureaucratized, and perform the very sort of central planning that was ritualistically denounced as an obscenity when governments tried to practice it. Big Data is not just a consequence of computational technology per se, but precisely of the bureaucratization of it.
In a world where the only thing more ubiquitous than bureaucracy is the fervent denunciation of bureaucracy, it is incredibly refreshing to find a text that pulls bureaucracy into the open, and gives a hopeful and optimistic account of it. Indeed, barring the catastrophic collapse of all social and technological mechanisms (which is what Anathema seeks to make happen in the novel), we will never truly be rid of bureaucracy. Far better, instead of continuing to hysterically denounce bureaucracy, that we embrace — as Paul does in the novel — what it might be able to accomplish at its best. Of course, Paul’s vision of it is an idealization — it is his private obsession after all, which is what allows it to attain magical status. But the novel is very smart in the ambiguous way it treats the questions of universalization and objectification. As I have noted, these processes are dangerous and more than problematic. But the confinement of magic entirely to the private sphere is also problematic, both because it ultimately collapses in on itself, and because it doesn’t provide any real solution the the problem of blowback (Flux). The novel carefully treads the line — as Paul himself carefully treads the line — between these two dangers. Paul finds himself against the whole world, as well as against himself, in his conviction that ‘mancy can be used for the general good — which is something that both ‘mancers and mundanes tend to reject out of hand. The same can be said for bureaucracy, as the particular form that Paul’s own magic takes. We can see here one of the big problems that comes up in, for instance, Srnicek & Williams’ accelerationist manifesto — where they call for central planning, they probably should be calling instead for the sort of bureaucracy that will be necessary if we are ever able to create an alternative to the capitalist nightmare we live in now. The point is not to eliminate bureaucracy, but to allow it to fulfill its positive potentials, rather than serving only as the “obscene excess” and hidden underpinning of neoliberal governance. FLEX is classified, in terms of genre, as “urban fantasy” rather than “science fiction”; but in fact it does what the best science fiction does. It extrapolates from actually existing conditions (in this case, those of neoliberal subjectivity) by proposing a novum, or a potentiality, that already exists in these conditions under the form of a haunting futurity: something that, in the words that Deleuze borrows from Proust, is “real but not actual”. The author never directly comes out and says this — and of course I have no insight into his actual intentions — but FLEX is almost entirely unique in the ways that it proposes a utopian vision (in the Blochian and Jamesonian sense) of a fulfilled bureaucracy.
[NOTE: I haven’t even gone into the personal/emotional dimensions of the novel. Paul’s relation with his 6-year-old daughter is crucial and heartwrenching — but how it relates to the ideas I have discussed here is complicated, and would require another lengthy discussion].